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Arnold: Culture, the Environment, and “Otherness”

by on August 27, 2011

“The problem of nature: environment, culture, and European expansion” by Arnold (1996) examines the relationship between history and the environment, specifically, the environmental role in European expansion between the fourteenth and early twentieth century. In the first two chapters, Arnold gives an introduction to man’s view of nature and nature’s role as a science through history. He then goes on to explain the environmentalist paradigm. The paradigm relies that on the basic notion that man and nature are intricately tied. Exactly how man and nature are tied remains the question, and has resulted in many paradigm shifts through history. Arnold concludes “…what is common to all these views is a basic belief that nature and culture are dynamically linked and that history is in some way connected with this intimate relationship” (page 11).

Arnold goes on to explain the role this “intimate relationship” has played in many aspects of human culture throughout history. For example, he discusses the role of environment in establishing political systems, using the example of vast Asian empires versus European states of modest size. Each political system has merit in its own environment. Whereas Asia was less fragmented, allowing one empire to spread across and govern the land, Europe was more naturally fragmented (by mountain ranges, seas, etc.), and more individual governing systems simply made more sense.

Arnold also explains that a feature of environmentalism in history has been “to establish ‘otherness’, to make contrasts between different societies as well as to explain the cultural and historical idiosyncrasies of any one society” (page 12), showing that this way of thought has been used to establish ideas of “us” and “them”, or “civilized” and “savage”.

The relationship of environmentalism establishing otherness was really interesting to me. This idea of otherness, on one hand, can be beneficial, as it can help us study and learn from cultures different from our own. As Arnold explains, however, environmentalism and the concept of otherness helped establish the idea of race, which eventually lead to discrimination based on race. A notable example from the article is another Europe/Asia comparison. Arnold quotes texts that essentially say that ancient Europeans were stronger because of their harsher climates, whereas ancient Asians in the same era were physically and mentally weaker. Is this concept discriminatory, or is this simply observation and comparison? There’s a thin line.

There are two very different ends of the spectrum. It’s a sensitive subject. To me, the concept of otherness seems alienating. The idea, however, lead to the establishment of ethnographic studies, which I think can be really interesting and useful. Ethnographic studies can teach us not only about different cultures, but about ourselves. Once again, though, this can be a slippery slope. If one is not culturally relative, these comparisons can be used to attempt to establish one culture as superior to another, as has been the case with history.

The reading left me with a few questions I thought it might be interesting to explore. Is establishing this idea of otherness mostly beneficial to us, or does it simply separate humans and beget conflict? Should different cultures be labeled as “others”, or is the concept of “us” and “them” outdated? If we don’t label these cultures as “others”, then how are we to establish comparisons and observations? Furthermore, is it still useful to establish comparisons, or does this perpetuate the idea of otherness and potentially superiority?

Personally, I am torn. I do not think that otherness is intrinsically bad. I think establishing different cultures as others gives us a solid basis for comparison, and as long as one is culturally relative, it can be useful for learning about how different lifestyles affect people. However, I think that the concept can also be alienating to people, and as history shows, can lead to sadly ethnocentric practices and systems of belief, like those used against the native Americans by early colonizers. It’s an issue on which taking a solid stance is difficult, and at the same time, one that’s absolutely worth discussing.

Image from http://www.moreintelligentlife.com

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15 Comments
  1. I agree that ethnocentrism, or the idea that one’s culture is superior to another, has taken a toll on how “we” and “others” view this idea of interconnectedness with nature and culture. In our own culture as Americans, many seem to think that nature is apart from our everyday lives and that we must go out of our way to fins some “pristine” and untouched environment in order to be in nature. However, in many other aspects, people around the world and even some here in our homeland would disagree with this idea of how nature should be defined. In my opinion, it is not a matter of who is right or wrong about what is considered nature and what is considered culture, but rather how people find objectivity through both sides of the fence. Otherness must be compared in both etic and emic perspectives in order to gain knowledge of different cultures and how they interact and are engaged with their environments.

  2. janellekramer permalink

    There is a lot of talk about “otherness” and whether it is right/wrong/outdated. And on that topic, I think I would agree. Seeing others as different more often than not usually leads to seeing others as bad, lesser, or not belonging. However, on the other side, I believe that “us” and “we” can be beneficial. There is a better sense of comradeship and a better sense of self when people feel they belong. In terms of the environment, including nature in the “we” has enabled cultures for thousands of years to take care of the land as the land has taken care of the people. I think that if people in developed countries viewed the environment as part of the “we” and not as a separate entity, as part of the “other,” people would put more intrinsic value on taking care of the environment for its own sake, as well as for ours.

    • Benjamin N. permalink

      I agree with your sentiments about “us” and “we.” If we use that sort of communal approach, we can make studying culture less alienating. Rather than looking at it as studying a different culture, it could be looked at as studying a different /aspect/ of /human/ culture. I feel like taking this approach could be a good way to combat ethnocentrism.

      • While in theory I think it would be wonderful to maintain a position of cultural relativism, I do not think that it is completely possible. As humans we have a tendency to want to do something with knowledge gained. We are not simply satisfied by learning about another culture.

  3. Amanda K. permalink

    I find Arnold to be slightly biased. He stated that Europeans were stronger because of harsher climates and that Asians were physically and mentally weaker just simply because of … weather? I think Arnold forgot that in both Europe and Asia, both consists of different diversity of climates, land structure, and especially, different historic cultures and viewpoint. However, Asia is geographically massive compared to Europe and there were many civilizations across Asia, such as the desert in west/central, the vast white fields of snows in the north, the dry lands in the east and the humid tropical in the south. All have their unique ways of living and using their resources around them to do so in different ways. Europe also have different climates, but the climates are not as drastically different as Asia and also, both have different viewpoints and culture.

    All in all, European countries were indeed stronger than Asians not because of weather, but because of the way they know how to manipulate their surroundings with new ideas that they adopted from different areas and introduction of new natural/material resources due to trades. Because of that, ideas and inventions flourished, thus creating a higher quality of life, not having to struggle to live. Population eventually increased drastically and inventions and ideas are constantly aiming for an even more progressive lifestyle. However, in order to do so, nature must be manipulated for the sake of society, such as constructing more and better shelters by destroying natural landscapes and cutting down trees to create more goods out of it. No one likes to lead and live a hard and hectic life in the past. I mean, look at Asia. A good number of countries (such as China, S. Korea, Japan, Singapore) adopted the idea of having a better life and gaining more power than they had in the past by concentrating on rising their economic power. Sadly, they overlook past the environmental consequences and now are suffering.

    I think I’m simply just going to end my rant here.

  4. Labeling people as “others” or different to a particular society should not produce negative consequences, yet it often does. This, I believe, has to do with the language choice societies use to describe another culture and the nature that surrounds them. In the article, Ellen and Fukui point out the word choices often used by cultures to describe nature-that “the idea of nature as passive and mute and therefore female, while culture is active, abstract and male” (Ellen, Fukui 11). Assigning specific words to a culture or nature creates its own culture within itself and signifies power. If “we” consciously think about our word choice when describing “others,” then this could possible stop the idea of one culture feeling superior to another.

  5. I like what you did here Benjamin. I felt this was a good summarization and was much easier to read and stick to then the reading itself. I also like what you said about ethnocentrism and the impact that it can have on an individual or a culture. I also believe that your thought process of the upside of labeling other cultural peoples as “others” is a good argument, but similar to what Kristin said in the previous comment, pointing out that Ellen and Fukui emphasize on specific word choices we make to label or categorize our surroundings, essentially giving them positive or negative connotations, plays a big role. Finally Benjamin, I thought how you brought in the question about “concept discriminatory” in regards to perceptions on ancient Asian societies.

  6. Whether the concept of “otherness” is right or wrong, I believe that it is important to study the differences among people and their environments. Race may create separation among people on a small level, but the world is changing. Environments aren’t so black and white because of the capability to manipulate them. The Arnold article provides information from a work, Airs, Waters, Places, which asserts that people of Asia are more lazy than Western people because of the amount of work their environments create for them. There is reason to argue this point as well as support it, but the fact that it offers an idea about how people are effected by their environments is of greatest importance in my mind. People have been effected by their environments in various extremes. The way the world is today and how all types of people are melting into each others environments there is the opportunity to share knowledge. How to avoid disease in ones own environment as well as when visiting others is an example of why it is beneficial to study the diverse environments of the world.

  7. 242colleencarey permalink

    I agree with you in that otherness isn’t a bad thing. It enables us to look at different cultures, compare them, and appreciate them for their ‘”otherness.” As for your blog, I think you did a good job at portraying Arnold’s message and goals in his article. I like the example you gave of racism in Asia and Europe. Another example might have been fun to read. Although Arnold does mention culture and nature being intrinsically tied, I believe that Arnold stressed that throughout history nature has had more of an effect on shaping cultures. Even though this might not been what he believed, I think that’s what his main message was in chapter 2. I might be wrong.

  8. powellmeg permalink

    I agree with Benjamin’s initial assertion about the thin line between the idea of “otherness” providing the conceptual forum for academic studies of the comparison of cultures while still inevitably generating prejudice, discrimination, or at the very least, a significant feeling of separation between races or/and cultures. I would argue that that separation is in no way beneficial to members of any culture; I am one to believe that we can work better together towards solving the world’s problems which we all face if we first recognize we have far more similarities than differences. On the other side of the line, though, I do think that there is value in recognizing the differences between cultures and studying and/or speculating about why the variance emerged. I think these types of studies can provide invaluable information about the cultural evolution of the human race – information that may also help us to foresee the direction we are heading and how we can guide it towards a better future. Overall, I seem to lean towards the opinion that the idea of “otherness” is more harmful on an personal level when one is conceptualizing other individuals of other cultures and does not generally help us, as humans, to become more united.

  9. Frederick Reisen permalink

    After reading Ben’s post and most of the comments above I believe we can all agree that “othering” has its pros and cons. At the current stage of anthropology, sociology, biology and handfuls of other disciplines I think there is little denying the fact that cultures and peoples are different from one another. If we look at nature there is variation within species often but usually the most unique of the species traits hold fast. I do not think this is any different in humans. We may differ in color, size, language, and many other features but we all have rationality, that is what makes us human. With our gift, trait, mutation or whatever you want to call it of rationality we should be able to overcome prejudices based on differences that in the big picture (i.e. evolution) mean little. The idea of ‘otherness’ can be used as an effective tool in examining not only other human cultures but the non-human natural world. It is not just humans that need to be united with one another but humans with what is around them.

  10. For scholastic reasons, I do think you should include “others” in the argument. To simply define someone/something else as “other” does not correlate to the other being wrong or backwards. It just categorizes them as not us. The negative comes from us, (us being the one studying the “other”) because we have categorized the “other”; we are able to talk about each group as defined within our terms. We must remain un biased in whatever we study. Other means different, not wrong.

  11. amygraceaustin permalink

    It is interesting to re-read these two chapters by Arnold and the subsequent blog comments from the mindset that I have now developed throughout this course. This article really does set a good foundation for the dialogue we have engaged in over the course of the semester. This article examines how the environment is related to themes of race, geographical and climatic determinism, and patterns of civilization.

    In relation to the discussion on the use of “otherness,” I feel my perspectives have shifted slightly. While I still agree that classifying groups of people as the “other” is still divisive and a legacy of colonial mindsets, I recognize the importance in acknowledging differences among people. I have come into contact this semester with people who so desperately try to honor the unity of humanity, but in doing so still view the world through their own biased mindset. The reality is that each individual and each society, collectively, have a different view of the world.

    However, because of Western hegemony, we hold do the power to impose and remove notions of the “other.” How we go about handling that is tricky business. By removing any form of the “other” we superimpose our mindsets, expecting other cultures to view the world as we do if we recognize a common humanity. (Humanity being what we define it to mean). However, continuing to impose notions of the “other” continues colonial legacies and further divides people. The reality of today is that very few “others” are removed from the effects of globalization. Our world is flattening quickly, and our romantic ideas of “untouched civilizations” are quickly being proved false.

    The main question, that I think Arnold would agree with, is not who we classify people, but how we learn from the history and move forward in our actions and understandings of our crucial role within the environment.

  12. I agree with Amy. I think that my answer may be different now than it would have been at the beginning of the year (since we have all read so many articles from different view points). Ben suggests an interesting point that ‘othering’ ourselves from other cultures can be important in understanding different views on life. However, I feel that this class has focused on things that make all people the same rather than what make people different. We are all controlled by the environment and all people must adapt to fit it.

  13. I also agree that the concept of labeling “others” seems like an ineffective and negative way to establish groups for study. However, I agree with Benjamin that it did help establish ethnographic studies and therefore has had a positive aspect. I think that over all, however, it would be extremely beneficial when studying culture to look at people as a whole group of many sub categories, that way, researchers are more likely to dig deep into other cultures’ lives in order to learn as much as possible about the subject matter they are studying.

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